Author Topic: Biafra - Another tale of wild type flying. - by Chrisg  (Read 1161 times)

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Biafra - Another tale of wild type flying. - by Chrisg
« on: July 14, 2009, 03:45:31 AM »
Biafra - Another tale of wild type flying.


In truth most of my time in Biafra could almost be called routine. Up every morning early to fly the first load of supplies in, often some hassles finding a strip if it was a new one, we had nothing much in the way of navaids. Landings that were often quite squeaky, shoehorning overloaded DC-3s and -4's into makeshift strips that frequently had tall trees at either end. Get unloaded, if we were near any habitations I and other pilots would often go and check them out, it was easy for the ground teams to miss a wounded or exhausted survivor, we saved a number of people that way. Then back out. Later we sometimes carried wounded or starving refugees, once there was somewhere to take them. But most often the return was empty, back for more supplies and do it all over again, three, four, five times in a day sometimes, often wondering if it was really doing much good. Although now at a remove of thirty years I think it probably did, at least in keeping people alive until the proper recovery could take hold.

None of those routine missions really stand out as something to tell a story about, well, except one, and I'm still trying to decide if I can tell you that one.

There was however a completely different mission that involved some of the scariest flying I have ever been caught up in, and it all began because of a nasty outbreak of some African virus, I forget which one, there are so many, amongst the refugees and our ground teams.

It wasn't of itself often fatal, but in their weakened condition it was proving the last straw for some refugees, and it was reducing our already stretched ground teams. We needed a vaccine and Red Cross were quick to bring in a team to identify the virus and see if one existed. It did, the research institute at Johannesburg in South Africa had encountered this particular nasty a few years before and isolated an effective vaccine.

That was its own problem: These were the bad days of apartheid, Nelson Mandella and Steve Bikko were both in jails somewhere down there, Black Africa did not talk to white Southern Africa, we would not even be able to easily get a flight plan cleared from the RSA to Nigeria.

Red Cross came up with an innovative solution.

South African Airways flew daily to London around the West African coast, landing to refuel at Ilho Do Sal, Sal Island in the Cape Verdes, a Portuguese territory out in the Atlantic off the West African coast. If we could get out there then SAA were happy to freight up the large number of vaccinations that the Institute would produce for us and we could bring them back to where they were needed.

The senior personnel in the area knew of my little solo adventure on the way to Biafra and of my military background. They thought perhaps I might be the best candidate to undertake the chore, especially as they could really only spare one pilot, and the aircraft they had in mind for the job was not something most of the others had even seen.

Parked in a back corner of the field under tarps was an HS, actually De Havilland, dating from before Sir Geoffery died and Hawker Siddley took over his company, 125 bizjet, a sleak little toy that was utterly useless for daily operations. It had been the personal transport of some Biafran leader but when the war went bad he had disappeared and the aircraft had wound up here, pretty much ignored.

Could I fly it?

Well, that was a conditional maybe. I had logged a small number of hours on the RAF version, the Dominie nav trainer, but that had just been as co-pilot to help out, and the military version was a very different aircraft. Still, it was a jet, a British jet, it had the range to do what was needed, not with a lot to spare, but enough, and it was big enough to easily carry the vaccine shipment.

I told them I'd go take a look, rounded up a mechanic who knew something about them and went to take off the tarps.

it was in pretty well immaculate condition, the air inside stale from its incarceration, but the mechanic assured me within minutes that it was in tip top condition, not long out of a major service, in flying hours terms, just needed some air in the tyres and a fluids change. In the pockets behind the pilot seats I found the manuals, rounded up a bottle of scotch and went off to find somewhere quiet to RTFM.

After a few hours of reading and a couple more sitting in the 'plane familiarising myself with the controls I couldn't really see any problems, it was a sweet little bird, pretty well viceless, I was eager to take it up and fly something that was actually younger than me for a change.

A test hop the following morning reinforced my confidence. I woke the island with the unfamiliar sound of high pitched jets, taxied crisply onto the runway and lifted away for a forty minute check ride that included a couple of stalls, an engine out and two touch and go landings before I brought it to a full stop then taxied over to the bowsers.

I'd been surprised to find we even had any Jet A1 around, but it turned out there was a whole tank of it, untapped since the pistons couldn't use it. I had her fully fuelled and went off to give the bosses the good news and find out when I should leave.

The answer was later that day. Jo'burg had pulled out the stops and the vaccines were ready to load on the SAA flight leaving that afternoon. Hmm, so a night trip, unless I waited until tomorrow, but there were a lot of sick people in the delta, the vaccine wouldn't help them, but it would stop more falling ill. I decided to leave just before sundown, Sal Island was a fully equipped field, DME, ILS, I had no real concerns about landing there at night.

I spent the day making sure the 125 was shipshape, everything battened down in the cabin, cargo nets to secure my return freight all set up, the necessary charts and other tools in place and a couple of thermos' of coffee ordered. Then I went and had a nap.

The take off was smooth and I took a little while climbing easily to 40,000 feet, West Africa could hardly be called controlled airspace in those days, up there I'd be above any other traffic, over the weather and at optimum for long range cruise.

At around 500 Knots I drifted along the coast past Ghana before making a turn to cut the corner of the sub-continent over The Ivory Coast and Liberia, then Sierra Leone and back over the ocean. There were some not particularly friendly nations down there but none of them were likely to be even aware of my passage, let alone able to do anything about it.

I passed the time playing with the comprehensive avionics suite of the aircraft. Someone had not spared expense when they went through the options list, every gadget then available to make flying easier was on-board. Pity that down below there were precious few systems I could hook into to use them. Still, this close to the equator navigation by dead reckoning was a snap, nothing to worry about.

As I came out over the Atlantic, leaving the coast behind, I did begin to be a little concerned. Weather forecasting then was not what it is now, the last forecast I had seen for the Atlantic had made no mention of any storms south of 30 degrees North Latitude, but now I was monitoring other aircraft making diversions around something, and the horizon far ahead was no longer marked by stars in the black night, it was a solid wall of ragged ominous black.

Something big had been born out there and we were heading for each other.

I raised Sal for an update. What they had to say was not encouraging. The edge of the storm was already at the islands and it looked to be a serious one. The SAA jet, a hundred fifty miles or so ahead of me, had already made a course change and sped up to get in in the next few minutes, I still had quite a while longer to go.

What to do? It's a classic flying problem, especially in Europe where I had learned to fly, fast moving storms can reduce your options quickly, leave you with no alternative but to penetrate turbulent air to get down through weather and back to terra firma.

I COULD turn back, I had fuel for Dakar, or even Freetown, but with the registration on this aircraft I'd have some explaining to do, undoubtedly be impounded for a day or two whilst all the paperwork was sorted.

That wasn't why I was here.

I raised the SAA 707 for a quick conversation. He was in descent and finding it bumpy, but not too bad. However his weather radar was painting some nasty cells to the west, he did not expect to be leaving Sal tonight.

No real help, the decision was still mine to make. Those cells would likely be in my path by the time I arrived, but from what he was telling me it wasn't a solid front, I should be able to find a way down.

I had a sip of coffee and decided to press on.

A couple of minutes later I had cause to regret that. My own radar started painting the storm, and it was a demon. Cumulo-nimbus boiling and surging, several of the thunderheads rearing close to my height, something they rarely do.

I did a fuel calculation and decided I had another option, get under this thing now and continue down low. Sal was reporting an overcast at 1500 feet, enough room.

As I listened to SAA arrive on finals I secured the thermos, took another tug on my shoulder straps and, picking what looked to be a good course between the worst of the cells, retarded the throttles and started down, holding the 125 just shy of Vne, the never exceed speed, get me down as quick as possible.

The storm reached out to us, advance guards of boiling cloud and twitchy winds sneaking in, beginning to nudge the 125, starting to play with the little jet like a badminton cock. That was worry enough, I wasn't even in cloud yet, this thing was stirring the air in a way I did not like, not one little bit.

At 20,000 feet I was deep in a canyon between surging lightning crowned hammerheads, nothing but solid cloud ahead of me and nowhere to turn. For sure I wasn't going near either of those monsters to left and right. Storm cells like those can engulf an airliner, spit it out in pieces after toying with it in roaring up and downdrafts.

Nothing for it, I held course, tried not to flinch as we plunged into the forbidding floor ahead and switched to blind flying routine.

The storm had me in an instant, a brief feeling of driving far too fast over rough roads then the first big gust was trying to lift the left wing.

Too quick, I'm still adjusting, turn off the body sensors, ignore the seat-of-the-pants, the semi-circular canals, all that matter are the tight clutch of instruments in front of me. Artificial horizon, airspeed, altitude, turn and slip, climb and descent, compass, spare a glance for the engine instruments, restart the circuit, eyes tracking around that little group of lifesavers in a rigid pattern, responding to each jerk of a needle, surge of a dial.

Just a big video game, if I could ignore the shaking seat and surging stomach. No point trying to keep straight and level, or even on a straight course, just dampen out the worst of it, keep the altitude going down and the speed under Vne.

A couple of minutes in a really big one caught me from the right, no chance to resist, the wing rose and I let it go, the little model in my artificial horizon tumbling around 360 degrees in a ragged roll and keeping going another full circle before it felt safe to catch it. Aerobatics in a maelstrom, in a jet designed more for silky smooth inter-city travel, not this aerial rally driving.

No chance to relax, lightning flashed outside the windshield, dazzling me despite my not looking. Through fading afterimages I caught my altitude suddenly rising - updraft, a massive one.

No way, I'd fought down through several thousand feet of this murk, not about to press restart now. I pulled the nose up, grabbed a fistful of throttle and lurched over the side of the draft - straight into its downbound twin.

Back with the throttles as the world fell out from under me, fighting disorientation and thinking at least this is going where I want, down. I pulled the nose up again, hung the 125 on a wing and deliberately orbited within the downdraft, all thought of course forgotten now, worry about that after I get out of this spin dryer.

You'll not find that tactic mentioned in any flight manual I've ever read, but it worked. Holding the little jet just above stall I spiraled seaward, a viciously fast descent that had me hanging in the straps, waiting for the crash when we bottomed out, charts I had thought secured flapping past my face for a second, something breaking back in the cabin and a sudden roar of noise that had me half out of my skin before I raised my eyes and saw the pellets of ice sputtering off the windshield.


A reminder to check the anti-ice. A brief shrill of the stall warning horn, add power, wait for the jets to catch up, a sudden rushing towards overspeed, back off the throttles again....

The downdraft faded, leaving me to plunge onwards in the gloom, being caught and twisted and buffeted from every side, but still working my way down.

It took nearly ten minutes, and felt like half a lifetime, before the crazed gyrations of the needles abruptly slowed and the somewhat gentler sound of rain lashing the fuselage made me look up again. I was under it, Leaden cloud above me, the wind whipped sea somewhere out my windshield. I leveled off quickly, below a thousand feet and trolling through a squall that was a summer zephyr compared to where we had just been.

Back under control I dragged in a very shaky breath and without really thinking aligned my course on the VOR/DME still tuned to Sal, eighty miles to go.

Taking stock I was out one thermos and something in the tiny galley down the back had shattered, otherwise the 125 was fine.

I shook my head, lit a cigarette and patted the throttle quadrant absently: "I'll think longer before I do that again, sorry..."

Sal cleared me straight in, no one else silly enough to still be in the air. I had an interesting ILS approach, picking up the glidepath but well under the localiser, no way I was going back into the clouds again just to fly a preferred approach when there was nothing in the way. I kept it shallow and intercepted localiser a mile or so out, by luck most of the wind was on the nose allowing me to float down to a perfect landing, a big rooster tail as we settled onto the runway and taxi in shaking off the rain like a dog back from a brisk run.

When I climbed down through the front stairs I turned and looked back at my jet. She was unmarked, cleaner if anything, glistening in the rain whilst I became very wet just looking at her.....

SAA had already organised refrigerated storage for the vaccines, I helped the ground crews with the tiedowns, locked her up after booking a refuel when the weather improved and headed for the booze. I needed a drink.

The bar was pretty full, stranded passengers and the SAA crew, which happened to include a very nubile blue eyed blonde.

Every cloud has a silver lining, this one came well stacked with everything a growing boy needs.....

Perhaps I had best draw a veil over the rest of the night, and the next morning when we awoke to truly filthy weather, all the excuse I needed to stay under the covers, although there was another, with a much more sunny disposition.

It wasn't until mid afternoon that it cleared enough to leave on an uneventful trip back to Fernando Po, running through skies swept clean by the storm and into the circuit at a base that was pretty well sealed down for the night.

I parked the bird with regret, and, unable to find any help, transferred the vaccines myself to the cool rooms.

When I walked into the billet it was a little like a movie. Everyone froze, looking at me.

"Where'd you come from?"

"Sal of course, wanna hear a story?"

"No, where from just now?"

"? Out on the field of course, why?"

"Oh nothing, you'll find out tomorrow."

I was too tired for riddles, I folded into my bunk and slept a solid twelve hours. When I woke it was mid morning, someone had given me the day off. I headed outside, wondering why I was hearing the distant boom of gunshots.

To immediately find myself confronted by a lunatic with a shotgun.

"Get back inside!!! We're still cleaning 'em up!!!"

"wha'...? oh...."

Not two metres to one side of me was a very nasty looking snake, curled up and not happy with the world, less so when the perhaps-not lunatic blew it away.


I'd been away not much over a day, but in that time a plague of serpents had descended upon the base and driven everyone inside the night before, after the buildings were de-loused. No wonder I caused a bit of shock when I wandered in.

No one ever quite decided where they all came from, but for a few days they were everywhere, and the place turned into a bizarre Wild West with every second man seeming to be toting a snake pistol or a shotgun, then they were gone.

Perhaps it was the food stocks, attracting rodents, which brought the snakes in, who knows? They were certainly well aware of how unwelcome they were, very quickly.

If I want a chill up my spine I just have to think about bumbling around out there in the dark that night, unloading vaccine packs, oblivious to all those slithery critters that I was probably stepping over or within centimetres of........

The storm just gives me a warm buzz these days, the snakes.........don't like snakes......

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